Advocacy tools are only one side of the government accountability equation

Increased government accountability and citizen engagement won’t come from more advocacy tools — we need contractor reform and better, more open CRM tools for elected officials

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More public engagement is leading to an information overload for public officials.

Technology on Capital Hill, and in most elected officials offices across the country, is terrible – it consists of outdated physical technology, software that was oftentimes implemented merely because some paper-pushing company won a bid for a contract, and web/technology standards that would make Internet Explorer-enthusiasts blush.

There is even a non-profit working with members of Congress called the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), who focuses nearly full time on trying to find ways to make it easier for members of Congress to organize their staff internally and communicate the public. CMF has released a number of studies on the dramatic increase in correspondences being directed by the public at members of Congress, but it seems like they always come up with inside the Beltway solutions – putting Band-Aids on hemorrhaging wounds instead of trying to call for outside support to re-think solutions.

In 2011, CMF released a study on the dramatic increase in time it takes for members of Congress to respond to constituents, with a huge number of offices indicating it regularly takes them more than 9 weeks to respond to a constituent, and many offices voicing the opinion that they don’t have the resources to respond to constituents.

This trend towards slow responses from elected officials all across the country will only increase as more and more products and advocacy apps come on the market to make it easier to “digitally scream” at elected officials. The folks working on these applications are doing gods work and it’s important, but it’s also ignoring the hard reality of being in elected office – it’s becoming harder and harder to respond to constituents and the public, and the technologies to support elected officials are being developed by a small group of DC-centric companies that are really great at navigating the contracting processes, but pretty miserable when it comes to actually making software that will stand the test of time. We need more people working on apps and data standards that will help elected officials adapt to the ongoing deluge of communication across multiple platforms, and provide an infrastructure that makes it possible for 3rd party developers to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Where is the breakdown in the feedback loop?

Engaging with elected officials is the classic chicken vs. egg scenario. Are people not being heard by elected officials because they don’t know how to contact elected officials, or are elected officials not hearing the public and their constituents because they don’t have a great way to manage the flood of incoming data and respond to it appropriately?

Recently, Change.org announced a program called “Decision Makers” to help elected officials and petition targets talk back to petition signers. Another effort was recently announced called AskThem, which is a clone of the We the People petition platform built by the White House complimented by the amazing elected official contact form database from DemocracyMaps. The goal of both Decision Makers and AskThem is to provide a better feedback loop for people looking to engage elected officials and other people in positions of power – unfortunately both platforms, and many of the new advocacy tools, are focusing most of their work on the user side (the public) and not on the service side (the elected officials). It appears AskThem will have some tools to let elected officials correspond with petition signers, but that appears to be more of an “add on” and not the focus of their tool – and it’s definitely not a replacement for internal CRM tools.

There are also dozens if not hundreds of applications on the internet that make it “easier” to speak your mind to elected officials, beyond the very public forums of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. The good folks at the Sunlight Foundation built many of these “advocacy” apps, or they provided the database infrastructure for them. Sunlight even just took over the popular OpenCongress.org from the Participatory Politics Foundation, which means there is another strong platform to make it easier to understand what’s going on in Congress and reach out to elected officials.

In short, it’s becoming easier and easier to reach out to elected officials, but that’s not improving the feedback loop or making it easier for elected officials to manage the growing deluge. In five years, it’s probably going to be even easier to send messages to elected officials all across the country – and we’ll probably be able to do it from our Google glasses or watch-phones – the user side is being overwhelmed with solutions, and every time another advocacy app is released, it weighs down the side of the formula that is already heavily over-weighted. And once again, elected officials are left with the process to sort through the mess of communication and try to figure out the best ways to respond to everyone, and the best tools to do it.

It’s hard to paint elected officials as victims in this cycle of public engagement, but do we really expect elected officials to be able to run a sophisticated constituent response system through Hootsuite, or TweetDeck, or some other tool that is not easily integrated into their main CRM platform? Do we really expect our government to be accountable if everyone is digitally screaming but no one can easily listen, organize or respond to those concerns?

The government contracting process for technology is broken all across the country.

The most public example of a broken government contracting process for technology has been Healthcare.gov, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Check out the website for The Official U.S. Time: http://www.time.gov/ — someone was paid money to build that – and even though they were probably paid that money in 1996, it’s still a real reminder that the government isn’t spending much time on technology decisions. </pun>
  • Or are you interested in checking out the U.S. Mint website that appears it could inject some sort of malware onto your computer at any point during your visit?: http://www.usmint.gov/ This site is proof that if you stick with something long enough (animated gif’s) they will come back in vogue.

Both of these federal websites are examples of agencies just not caring, or potentially not spending much money on their websites, but it’s also part of a larger problem where government agencies just aren’t empowered to make good technology contracting decisions.

Clay Johnson and Harper Reed wrote a great piece on federal technology contracting last week that hit the nail on the head:

“Much of the problem has to do with the way the government buys things. The government has to follow a code called the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.”

They went on to highlight why there needs to be more technology contracting reforms:

“Government should be as participatory and as interactive with its citizens as our political process is. A digital candidate will never be able to become a digital president if he can’t bring the innovation that helped him win election into the Oval Office to help him govern.”

Clay and Harper wrote about problems in our federal technology contracting system, but their concerns about technology contracting could easily be replicated all the way down to the local level. Just think about how bad the technology contracting is on the federal level, and then imagine how bad it could be on the city-level.

The blog CoralSpringsTalk.com accidently made a strong argument for local technology contracting reform with their 2012 Best and Worst City websites in Broward County Florida – some of their “best websites” are even scary.

But pick a random mid-sized city in your state and check out their local government website – it’s most likely a mish-mash of technologies, almost certainly doesn’t look right on a mobile phone, and is probably a shit-show on the backend —  which makes it really hard for the internal staff to manage constituent responses.

Now, step back and realize that there are nearly 300 cities across the country with over 100k residents, there are nearly 20k municipal governments, over 30k incorporated cities – and trying to ensure that all of these elected officials and people who are paid for with taxpayer money have access to a system that makes it feasible to respond to constituents is extremely daunting.

But even though there is a huge difference in needs, budgets and resources, one thing is essentially constant across all these government offices – their budgets are paid for by constituents and taxpayers. All of these taxpayers want accountability, but in order for that to happen, technology and advocacy communities need to come together to make it easier for elected officials to effectively manage websites, constituents responses, and standardize the process, so that in 10 years, this is a problem that we’re on the way to managing, not a growing problem that is becoming harder and harder to reverse. Unfortunately in order to do that, we probably need some sort of contracting reform at all levels of government.

Constituent verification is extremely difficult with social networks — feedback loops continue to get more complicated

Typically, elected officials will only respond to their own constituents, this is somewhat due to the fact that they don’t give a shit about someone unless that person can vote them out of office (they would probably argue that they also care about someone if they can write a huge check to their re-election campaign), but more practically, elected officials limit communication to only constituents because they and their staff have so many conversations to manage, so the easiest way to ensure that they can actually follow-up with constituents is to arbitrarily say that they won’t follow-up with people outside their district.

When people communicate with elected officials via social media and  3rd party advocacy apps, most elected officials only respond if they really have to. They also probably rarely know about a lot of the complaints and criticism they receive on these platforms, unless they have a great team of staffers monitoring every page on the internet (sounds like a job for Carlos Danger!).

Also, based on the surveys done by the Congressional Management Foundation, most offices in Congress take weeks to reply to constituents – some local offices are probably better than that, but it’s still a slow process. Most of these responses come from people who directly emailed, called or wrote a letter to the office. But what happens when someone signs a petition and it’s just hand-delivered? Or what happens when someone joins a Twitter campaign or posts a question on an elected officials Facebook page? The vast majority of these responses are ignored because there isn’t an easy way to sync them into one centralized system and flag them as needing follow-up. Furthermore, elected officials can’t easily verify whether a commenter on Facebook or someone on Twitter is actually their constituent, so currently, those types of communication are essentially ignored, which leaves people feeling like elected officials just aren’t listening. Elected officials aren’t ignoring them per say, but they are merely being overwhelmed with the enormous amount of places that someone could be digitally shouting for feedback.

So instead of online activists trying to figure out more ways to throw shit on the proverbial communication wall, they should be trying to figure out better ways to deliver feedback to members of Congress, and other elected officials, in a standardized format, and within a platform that provides the flexibility to adapt to 21st century technologies.

Constituent Relations is only as good as the CRM managing it — new constituent management platforms need to be developed and empowered from city councils all the way to Congress

Most members of Congress manage their constituent relations with a similar CRM tool – basically it allows them to classify messages under certain categories, flag constituents for follow-up, manage staff priorities and better understand the direct feedback their office is receiving. But the problem is that this tool is totally private – none of the data is flowing back out publicly, and the only time the public knows that X people called the elected officials office to complain about Y issue is when the office decides to release that information publicly.

Furthermore, the tools that most offices use to manage constituent relations were not built to be open, and they weren’t built with 3rd party developers in mind. Image how much easier it would be if there was a data standard for contacting elected officials, and any 3rd party app that was trying to conduct online advocacy could implement the standard to ensure that feedback through their app got to elected officials in a secure, standardized way to ensure that their app users would actually get some sort of response from an elected official.

In 5 or 10 years, it should ideally be easy for developers to create applications that not only let people speak with elected officials from all levels of the government, but do-so in a way that ensures the elected officials are actually being engaged in a productive discussion, and not just getting digitally spammed.

Furthermore, whatever data standard or CRM platform is eventually pushed upon more elected officials should also make it easier to provide transparency – elected officials should be able to turn on public portals so people could see how many constituents asked about X issue on any given day, or how many messages the offices has been sending out. These reports don’t have to get too detailed, but the public should have a better sense for what’s going on with digital communications inside offices – and that type of transparency would go along way towards increasing the trust people have for their elected officials, and also help people better understand how staff members spend the majority of their time.

In conclusion, this two-sided formula for government transparency is not going to be solved overnight – but it seems like more and more efforts are being directed to one side of the equation (engagement with elected officials) while not working on the other side of the equation (better CRM’s and tools for elected officials). Hopefully in the future we start to see this balance out.

What can the political advocacy community learn from the open government community?

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View a mind map of a proposed infrastructure that would facilitate information sharing in the progressive political advocacy community in order to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation. 

Open data doesn’t necessarily create an open government, but an open government can’t exist without open data. Similarly, open political data doesn’t necessarily mean an open political community, but you can’t have an open political community without open political data.

Distributed organizing is quickly becoming the norm for progressive political advocacy organizations like Moveon.org, Democracy for America, CREDO, Corporate Action Network, and many others. It’s effective, it’s scalable, and it empowers individual activists.

But the question remains: how do you take a distributed organizing model within an individual organization, and then collaborate with other organizations to build a movement? And how do you do it in a scalable, automated way to encourage collaboration, innovation, and experimentation within the progressive community?

Open data & open government advocates have learned that standardized and accessible data encourages innovation and experimentation.

One of the open government models that the progressive advocacy community should emulate comes from the Sunlight Foundation and their set of open government API’s. They have spent over seven years finding government data sources, standardizing the data, and serving it up in unique API’s that have facilitated hundreds of open government applications. Sunlight built a brain trust of open government data in the U.S. that is not only transforming the way people process information about the government, but it’s created a collaborative space for open government advocates to gather and build apps.

Another open government model that should be noted by the progressive advocacy community is from DemocracyMap, a data translator/API created by former Presidential Innovation Fellow Phil Ashlock. DemocracyMap uses data from the Sunlight Foundation API’s, and combines it with data from web scrapers to create what he calls a “meta-API that aggregates, normalizes, and caches other data sources including geospatial boundary queries” – in short, his API has nearly 100k contact records of elected officials across the U.S., and his simplified API makes it possible to integrate just one API into a 3rd party app, instead of forcing a developer to connect dozens of external API’s and web scrapers, while also maintaining that process.

Finally, when it comes to standardizing international open government data, projects are still in their infancy. But one effort to organize and debate the standardization process has been led by the awesome Canadian open government group Open North. They launched an effort called The Popolo Project, whose goal “is to author, through community consensus, international open government data specifications relating to the legislative branch of government, so that civil society can spend less time transforming data and more time applying it to the problems they face. A related goal is to make it easier for civic developers to create government transparency, monitoring and engagement websites, by developing reusable open source components that implement the specifications. Although the data specification is designed primarily for open government use cases, many other use cases are supported.”

What these three large and audacious efforts have in common is an understanding that open, accessible data spurs innovation. There is a movement taking place in the open data community – a movement that is making huge gains for the open government community – but far too few people are paying attention to how this work could be translated into the political advocacy community.

How can progressive political advocacy organizations emulate the strategies of open government/data organizations in order to encourage innovation, collaboration, and experimentation? 

The progressive political advocacy community has a strong infrastructure led by 10-20 major groups, dozens of issue-focused groups, hundreds of local and state-based groups, and thousands of sophisticated political operatives and technical developers. Some of the groups are more effective organizers than others, some are more technical, some are better financed – but they are among an infrastructure working to activate and engage millions of individual activists looking to take collective action to affect progressive change.

From a technical organizing perspective, one of the big takeaways over the last few cycles has been that distributed organizing is an effective way to engage and grow a large group by empowering smaller groups and individual activists. These smaller groups launch niche-issue campaigns, hyper-local efforts, and are the ears on the ground to find issues that could be elevated to a national or state-level.

But one big question about distributed organizing remains –with more and more organizations employing this strategy every year, how can we connect this growing distributed movement into a larger technical infrastructure to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation? 

View a mind map of a proposed infrastructure that would facilitate information sharing in an automated, machine-readable format.

There are a number of significant hurdles that advocacy organizations would have to overcome in order to build out a similar infrastructure that exists in the open government/data community. Just a few of those hurdles includes:

  • The support and funding from a respected organization or company looking to lead the project and support it’s growth into the future
  • Buy-in from the largest stakeholders in distributed organizing
  • Policies and practices to ensure no personal user data was compromised or shared without explicit approval from end users
  • An agreed-upon standardized data structure that would streamline metadata sharing
  • An agreed-upon authentication standard for an open voting API or any leadership system that was cross-site functional
  • An in-depth depth discussion about the end-goals of a Progressive API, in terms of what types of metadata and resources should be served up for 3rd party app providers in order to encourage progressive innovation, experimentation and collaboration
  • An in-depth discussion with the largest stakeholders about what types of information could be useful in a limited access Progressive Dashboard that would facilitate better information sharing and collaboration

These are just a few of the outstanding issues that would need to be discussed – not to mention whether this technical infrastructure would actually be useful to the movement at large.

How we can take the Green Button API lessons and apply them to an Open Voting API?

Data standardization + Authentication standardization = Scalable data sharing

Green Button is a concept conceived by President Obama’s White House and is being implemented by the energy industry across the country – the goal was to provide near real-time access to energy usage in a home or a business.

The Green Button concept was relatively straightforward: create a data standard for energy usage so metadata produced from energy companies could be machine readable by 3rd party apps, and create an authentication standard so that 3rd party apps could connect to all energy companies through the same process. So far, about 30 million households have access to Green Button data, mostly in California, and dozens of 3rd party app providers have launched apps to help people better understand their energy usage.

You may be wondering – how could we apply the lessons from Green Button, a concept rooted in hard-data from energy usage, to something more abstract, like an online voting application?

Recently, Micah Sifry wrote a thought-provoking piece, “You Can’t A/B Test Your Response to Syria.” In his article, he gently poked holes in efforts by progressive groups to poll their members to determine what position the organizations should take on Syria. Essentially, he claimed that the small-scale voting efforts weren’t representative of the progressive movement at-large, and the polling was merely a CYA strategy.

If progressives were to take a queue from Green Button, it’s possible they could develop a cross-site voting infrastructure that would let groups not only vote across multiple sites and organizations – think of it like a distributed voting and leadership infrastructure — but it could also empower more innovative 3rd party apps that are built to conduct group decision making. The concept is relatively simple, just like green Button, but the implementation would certainly have a number of technical and logistical hurdles. Some of these hurdles include:

  • How would organizations want to conduct cross-site voting?
  • What process would need to be implemented in order to ensure some sort of voting integrity or voting authentication standards?
  • How could someone’s vote spin off into a separate leadership group? For instance, everyone who voted “no” about whether the U.S. should bomb Syria, could those people be added to a leadership group to discuss additional strategies?
  • How could a cross-site leadership and voting infrastructure be implemented by the largest groups in a way that would ensure they aren’t marginalizing their own power to engage and motivate their members?
  • How could/should voting data be anonymized in order to break down demographic and geographic information?

There are numerous groups already trying to solve the “group decision making” problem, and some of them may have already moved this ball forward to some extent. But one of the big problems with a top-down decision from one company or organization is that all of the stakeholders don’t get a chance to talk about issues with the system. The Green Button data standard has gone through years of intense debate in order to ensure that the energy company stakeholders were on board with the decisions and so that they could implement whatever data standard/authentication process was decided upon. It’s my belief that any distributed voting or leadership effort that attempts to bring on board the largest progressive groups, needs to directly address their concerns throughout the entire deliberative process.

Should the Progressive Political Advocacy community attempt to build a system similar to what has been built out by the open government/data community?

The process to build out a technical infrastructure to encourage innovation, collaboration and experimentation within the progressive political advocacy community could take years of work. Stakeholders would need to be brought to the table, high-level discussions with app developers would need to take place, and individual activists would need to provide their feedback on the proposed infrastructure. Beyond that, there are a handful of things that would need to be debated:

  • Research and catalog unique data sources/groups to get a sense for the political advocacy landscape
  • Debate and determine standards for metadata sharing
  • Debate and determine authentication standards
  • Create an application to translate unique data source metadata into the standard
  • Serve the metadata standard through a JSON API to 3rd party app providers
  • Provide metadata analysis through a limited-access application
  • Determine the feasibility of an open voting API and implementation steps

There would likely be dozens of other smaller hurdles along the way that would need to be overcome, but it’s my belief that this type of infrastructure is the key to tying everything together.

We all use different CRM/CMS platforms. Some groups custom code projects. Some groups use open source projects. New apps and websites are coming online all the time with the “cure all” to our problems. New group decision-making apps are created every year. New best-practices apps and organizations are launching all the time. But individual apps and organizations just don’t seem like they will ever be able to build out an infrastructure, grow themselves into sustainable efforts, and provide the collaborative, innovative technology to move the progressive advocacy community forward over the next 20+ years.

Organizers oftentimes say that people are the solution to our problems. Technologists oftentimes say that digital is the solution. Old-school strategists point to local organizing and distributed decision making as the key to growing our movement. New-school strategists point to list building and distributed organizing supported by large organizations as tenants of new organizing. The question remains though: is any one strategy the correct one? How can we bridge all of these concepts together in a way that won’t solve the problems we’re seeing today, but will solve the problems in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years down the line.

Finally, some people may wonder why this process should be limited to the progressive political advocacy community – and why not build something out like this for people of all political persuasions. The main reason is that this process is complicated enough without trying to bring together politically disparate groups and individuals and try to get them to work together. It would be like trying to teach 100 cats to dance a synchronized swimming routine – perhaps fun to watch, and amazing if it actually worked out – but utterly unrealistic when looking at the challenges at hand.